Examining the ISIS Oil Business

PHOTO: A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa, Syria in this June 29, 2014, file photo.PlayReuters
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On Wednesday, as part of President Barack Obama's plan to "systematically degrade, dismantle and defeat" the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the U.S. Treasury Department said that it would step up pressure on the extremist group's illicit oil sales.

In a blog post that day, David Cohen, the department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that the "Treasury is committed to ensuring that [ISIS] is unable to access the international financial system."

The value of the ISIS oil trade has been widely estimated at $1 to $3 million per day, though experts have warned that the figure could be a high estimate. It comes from crude gathered in oil fields across ISIS-held territory in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces; then it's trucked into Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, or sold to vendors in regime-held areas.

We asked Richard Mallinson, head of international affairs and energy policy at Energy Aspects, to weigh in on the ISIS oil economy, how far it can reach, and how sustainably it might last.

Syria Deeply: How accurate is the widely reported $1 million-per-day number?

Richard Mallinson: It's difficult to get reliable information about domestic markets within the Middle East even before they become black markets. But the headline numbers widely quoted in the press – on how much money ISIS might be generating through the oil black market – are too high. The most common figure quoted is $1 million a day, based on original analysis that was done by the Iraq Oil Report. That was very speculative – and at the time, they were very clear on that – but now it's entered the media's narrative. And there are a few reasons why that number is questionable.

One reason is that we don't know what type of volume is moving, because the original Oil Report analysis referenced a source saying there were up to 100 trucks full of oil loaded from ISIS territory and sold per day. There are questions about how reliable that source is. That figure was also given early on, just after ISIS had taken control of fields in Iraq and before there had been much international attention to this issue of oil smuggling.

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Even if that was the case – even if the number of trucks was as high – it will have fallen quite a bit by now. I don't think ISIS has the capability to maintain production on these oil fields at anywhere near that capacity. And the neighboring countries these trucks were moving towards –Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan – will have tightened up their border checkpoints. A smaller number of oil cargos are still being sold, but I'm skeptical about both the scale of the trade and the amount of revenue that's coming into ISIS's coffers.

Syria Deeply: Where exactly is the oil going? How much cheaper is this oil?

Mallinson: There have been persistent reports inside Syria that there are sales from rebel-controlled areas and fields to regime-controlled territory. But it's unclear whether those sales are actually to organized arms of the regime or to local civilian markets in areas under Syrian army control.

These oil cargos are crude and need to be processed to some degree to be usable as fuel. They'll be going to small private refineries, and there are a number in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. As a result of their small capacity, they're less closely observed and it would be easier for them to quietly process discounted smuggled oil from ISIS, then sell it.

There are reports of even more basic refining processes, of work being done to convert the crude oil and products being used as fuel – even the militants themselves could be selling the crude, to buyers who then process it into fuel. The normal supplies of fuel have been disrupted by the war, particularly in northern Iraq, where a flood of both IDPs and Syrian refugees have added pressure to the fuel distribution system. There's now a need for fuel supplies that are difficult to source and bring in. So this provides a market opportunity for less scrupulous groups.

Genel Energy, one of the main operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, was trucking a lot of the crude it was producing in Kurdistan to local markets in 2013, and was getting an average of $65 to $75 per barrel, which were legit crude sales. There was no legal uncertainty or political risk there for buyers. For current black market crude sales – in the same area, the same market with the same economic pressures – I would guess sales of $50 to $60 per barrel.

Assumptions and calculations done in July are unlikely to still hold true today. I imagine that the Kurdish Regional Government has made firm statements about closing the border to smuggling, not tolerating it. It will have reduced the amount of oil smuggling, but I don't know if that's put off buyers at the local level. I imagine most buyers, if a truck pulls up at their doorstep, can figure out from both the sellers and the price of the oil that it might have come from ISIS.

This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply.